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Triumph of great traditions

- When undergrads and elder statesmen reversed roles
Team Oxford vs Team Cambridge at the Calcutta Club The Telegraph International Debate 2012 on Sunday. Picture by Rashbehari Das

Calcutta, Dec. 16: Why would 10 clever adults looking forward to a good dinner on a winter’s evening choose to spend three preprandial hours being delightfully nasty to one another about what defines parliamentary democracy?

Apart from combativeness, wit, mind-flexing and fun, there is something about a successful debate that has to do more with make-believe than with firmness of opinion. For a couple of hours or so, the speakers have to believe that they believe, and that a great deal more than dinner is at stake in persuading the audience that they are right and their opponents are wrong.

what a little adrenaline can do!” Billie Holiday might have sung, forgetting about moonlight altogether, after listening to the “Oxford versus Cambridge” debate organised on its lawns by the Calcutta Club (in association with The Telegraph, Alsoc and the Calcutta Debating Circle), where the House believed that populism, not policy, defined parliamentary democracy.

So, debating brought together not only the two most celebrated old universities of the world, with their own tradition of debating and of being publicly nasty to each other (in the House or on the river), but also two great traditions of democracy, whose origins and history are inextricable from each other.

Three young debaters from each university were combined in each team with local Oxbridge alumni. So, students of veterinary medicine, law, literature and history shared the podium with senior doctors, professors and journalists. They proved, yet again, that the energy of debating could turn undergraduates into elder statesmen and elder statesmen into undergraduates.

And it all began, after all, in Westminster. An event like this takes the rituals and rhetoric of Westminster back to their roots in the universities. It also measures the contemporary difference between what have now become two hugely divergent styles of electoral democracy — the British and the Indian — particularly when they come together, so genially and entertainingly, in such a forum.

It was delightfully ironic to be reminded at the beginning by the moderator — cardiothoracic surgeon Kunal Sarkar — that passions could safely run high, for the mikes were cordless and the lecterns fixed to the podium (so difficult to hurl at people if they happened not to agree with you), and the podium itself sturdy enough to withstand some enthusiasm, but not an unlimited amount.

The two Matthews opened the debate, one dreaming of prime-ministership and the other introducing the theme that would exercise most of the speakers: the difference between “popular” and “populist”. The Oxonian physician, Ranjan Roychowdhury, reminded us of Rupert Brooke’s delicious observation: “Cambridge people rarely smile/ Being urban, squat and packed with guile.”

In a more serious vein, professor Rajat Ray took us on a whistle-stop tour of “policy cleavages” that somehow finished in classical Athens. Emma Livingston, fiery in an emerald-green dress, talked about the “quicker and shorter” — the Twitterishness — of populism, while Richard Coates, a lawyer to the bone in being able to think robustly on the run, made an appeal to hope and reason with effortless gravity.

The evening had started with gift-giving and votes of thanks. That is all very nice, except that debates are not meant to be polite conversation. So, Rudrangshu Mukherjee brought a welcome infusion of the gladiatorial to his “lost cause” of having to defend a “self-evident proposition”, against which the audience was warned by the historian, Sugata Bose, quick to hit out against Oxford’s “wrongheadedness”: “Whenever you hear someone claim that a proposition is self-evident, you have to be suspicious.” Combining solidness and eloquence, he put down Oxford’s notion of “modern” history, which “began with the Roman empire and ended with the fall of Rome”.

Carin Hunt took on her opponents relentlessly, one by one, while Clara Spera asked how one could define the “define” in the motion, much as Cole Porter had asked for the beguine to begin. Each speaker had to face one question from his or her opponents, and it had to be a proper question instead of being a comment pretending to be a question. In a city not known for concision in its habits of expression, it was a valuable exercise — also because it showed that debate was as much about listening as about speaking.

It is disappointing when, at the end, the House votes for the winner, not based on their powers of persuasion but on what it believes in irrespective of the quality of debating. But that did not seem to happen this time. Cambridge won, perhaps not because the audience preferred policy to populism, but because it was making a choice between different styles of debating. Debating is not about being correct or fair, but about being willing to be swayed by wit.

Caesar and his kind would have understood.